It occurred to me that although I have read a lot of the mountains of articles being written about the conflict in Syria I had no idea about some of the fundamentals of the conflict. For example I didn’t have a clue as to where the lines were between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and forces loyal to Assad nor did I know the composition of the FSA. So I decided to gather together some basic info and present it to people to give a better overview of what’s actually going on.

The state of play in Syria

In the map red represents Assad’s area of control, green the FSA and yellow Kurdish controlled areas.

The FSA is reported to consist of a wide range of different factions and is more an umbrella term than a unified fighting force. There are reported as being as many as 140,000 fighters within its ranks, including anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 deserters from the Syrian Army.
The Institute for the Study of War criticizes the FSA claiming that:

Fragmentation and disorganization have plagued Syria’s armed opposition since peaceful protesters took up arms in December 2011 and began forming rebel groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. A lack of unity has made cooperation and coordination difficult on the battlefield and has limited the effectiveness of rebel operations.

Here’s a first hand account by Jonathan Spyer, writing in the Journal of World Affairs, he went into Syria and met with members of the FSA, he says:

The FSA generally appears to be a loose collection of local militias, consisting largely of army deserters but also of Syrian civilians who have taken up arms against the regime. It is well equipped for street fighting, but does not have the weaponry or the expertise to withstand a frontal assault from Assad’s forces at this stage. It also does not appear to have an efficient or centralized command structure, though there is clearly communication on some level between different 
local elements.

al-Nusra Front (the Jihadis)

There are Islamists both inside the FSA and in their own independent units. The most prominent is the al-Nusra Front which has declared allegiance to al Qaeda. They use suicide bombers as a weapon against Assad’s forces and have had some notable successes. The French want them declared a terror organisation by the UN.

With an estimated 5,000-10,000 fighters they are a serious player in the war. The group was originally formed before the civil war by Syrian Jihadis going to Iraq to fight the Americans. According to the Quilliam foundation at the start of the civil war they were deployed back to Syria by their leadership to fight Assad. Despite their size they have managed to make an impact due to the fact that they consist of highly experienced guerrilla fighters. Their members cut their teeth fighting the Americans in Iraq.

The primary objective of the al-Nusra Front is to turn Syria into an Islamist country. For some time they received support from Assad’s government who supported Syrian Jihadis going to Iraq to fight in the insurgency against US forces. When Assad changed policy however he arrested their leadership and generally attempted to suppress them ensuring that many remained in Iraq.

The group has admitted to killing unarmed prisoners in their care. The assessment of their effectiveness by the Quilliam Foundation makes for grim reading considering their methodology and aim of replacing the secular dictatorship of Assad with an Islamic regime rather than a democratic one.

There are other Jihadi groups fighting against Assad this report is an excellent guide to who they all are and their motivations.

The Kurds

There are many faces to this conflict and perhaps the least reported on is the Kurds. This ethnic group has carved out its own territory to the North of Syria along the Turkish border. The Kurds have been in conflict with turkey for decades though there are many different Kurdish armed groups in Turkey, Iraq and Syria and it appears as though those in Syria have little wish for conflict with the Turks. They are receiving training from Kurdish Iraqi forces.

The Kurds are in a tough position, they are unlikely to want to give up their territory to either Assad or the FSA and could potentially become embroiled in conflict with both sides. To make things even more difficult the chances of conflict with Turkey grow the more powerful they become. The Turks are unlikely to be happy about the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish group on their Syrian as well as on their Iraqi border. Turkey has invaded Iraqi Kurdish territory on several occasions and has traded fire with them on and off for years. They also stifle Kurdish identity within their own borders.

There have been several reports of FSA forces receiving training from US Special forces in Jordan. They also receive millions of dollars in aid from the United States. So far this aid has been limited to non lethal equipment though the United kingdom is currently pushing for this policy to change to include more effective, lethal weaponry.

Hezbollah and Iran

It is well known that both Hezbollah and Iran have placed forces on the ground in Syria to fight for the survival of the Assad regime. Both sides are looking to protect their lines of communication with one another and their strategic interests. Currently Hezbollah are reported to be heavily engaged in clashes with the al-Nusra Front for the town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border.

Iran has admitted to having troops in Syria.

There have been and will be many more articles written about the state of play in Syria, hopefully this gave you a little more knowledge about who’s who and what’s what.